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Today President Barack Obama visited one of the oldest and most successful municipal broadband utilities in Cedar Falls, Iowa to underscore his intent to support robust net neutrality regulations and to increase Americans’ access to fast and affordable broadband services.

As part of a package of measures to be discussed in the State of the Union, President Obama is calling for an end to laws in 19 states "...that limit the range of options available to communities to spur expanded local broadband infrastructure, including ownership of networks." The President is urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to eliminate state statutes that are "inhibiting local communities from responding to the broadband needs of their citizens."

Wisconsin is one of those 19 states, and the City of Madison is one of those communities that are inhibited from fully responding to its citizens’ broadband needs. I applaud the President’s efforts on behalf of enabling local governments to offer increased broadband competition and better services. The other initiatives announced today, involving support for local broadband deployment projects and funding for development of rural services, are also welcome.

Madison has already been utilizing broadband for government functions. The MUFN network has connected schools, fire stations, and other government buildings with fiber-optic cable. The city has also connected community centers, branch libraries and is in the process of connecting cultural centers. But our efforts to expand MUFN (Municipal Unified Fiber Network) was stifled in 2007 when ATT wrote the legislation that was adopted at the Capitol

…legislation so draconian in character. If it passes, it would let the cable giants eventually eliminate local municipalities from the process. Consumer protections will be weakened. Local public, education, and government channels will be starved out of existence. In addition, cable rates will go up…*

If the FCC follows President Obama’s lead, we can and must do more. I will be consulting with the City Attorney’s office and City staff to examine existing ordinances and develop new ordinances to allow the city to pre-empt the 2007 State law that prevented the city from overseeing our own broadband operations. I will work with the City’s Digital Technology Committee to then direct local broadband providers to offer lifeline rates to families with children in the free and reduced lunch program. There is precedent for this as Comcast is already providing that service in some cities. These rates would make broadband affordable to families and neighborhoods that are currently left out and their children are preventing from participating fully in the opportunities other students have in school.

The President’s announcement today and the release yesterday of a White House report detailing what municipalities have been able to accomplish utilizing broadband are very welcome. I recognize, however, as does the President, that the real legal action will come at the Federal Communications Commission, which has scheduled a vote on robust regulation of net neutrality next month. The FCC also has the legal authority to simultaneously pre-empt state laws that create barriers to municipal broadband, and I join President Obama is urging the Commission to do so.

* Barry Orton, Waxing America, November 5, 2007